Children's Review: Hurricane Child

Native Virgin Islander Kheryn Callender's debut novel blends magical realism with a bittersweet tween love story about a girl trying desperately to hold her life and family together after losing the mainstay of both.

Caroline Murphy has always heard that her birth during a hurricane cursed her with bad luck, and in her 12th year of life, the story seems true. At the Catholic school she attends on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caroline has no friends, only bullies. Teacher Missus Wilhelmina loathes Caroline because her skin "is darker than even the paintings of African queens hanging in the tourist shops" and never misses an opportunity to spank Caroline or threaten her with expulsion. Her classmates, led by mean girl Anise, throw stones at her and taunt her about her absent mother. At home on Water Island, a speedboat taxi ride away, Caroline lives with her father and the hole her mother made in their lives when she suddenly left, giving no forwarding address. A constant presence in Caroline's life are the spirits. One, "the woman in black," is particularly disquieting--completely black except for "eyes shining like two full moons in her face"--and Caroline suspects the spirit took her mother. Then she meets Kalinda Francis, a new classmate from Barbados with dreadlocks and a confidence that sends her straight to the head of the pecking order. Caroline is shocked to realize Kalinda can see spirits, too, but even more shocked when the popular girl becomes her close friend. However, Caroline will never feel whole unless she finds her mother, and her growing romantic feelings for Kalinda threaten their bond.

This tender, character-driven exploration of first loss intersecting first love balances sympathetic characters with a rarely seen setting. The smooth integration of island details, including empty, expensive resort condos next door to camouflaged housing projects, grounds the narrative and provides a sobering backdrop for the elements of magical realism. Callender's commitment to remaining within a preteen's scope of understanding preserves the narrative's simplicity and authenticity. For example, she never flinches from acknowledging sexuality but leaves aside labels; Caroline knows only that she loves her friend in a way people around her condemn. The resolution of the Murphy family drama opts out of the finality of the well-known missing mother story Walk Two Moons (Sharon Creech, 1994), but also refuses to shy away from the complexities of repairing a rift in a family. Though readable for grades four through seven, ages 10 through 13 may most appreciate this empathetic and emotionally mature coming-of-age drama. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services division manager at Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library

Shelf Talker: Kheryn Callender's sensitive debut stars a preteen girl from the Virgin Islands who searches for her mother and falls in love with a female classmate.

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